Parashat Shemini: The Dedication of the Mishkan at the Altar

  • Rav Shimon Klein

Introduction

 

The dedication of the Mishkan reaches its climax in the verses of our parasha:  

 

And Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; which, when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces (Vayikra 9:23-24)

 

The seven days of consecration, during which time Moshe consecrated Aharon, his sons, and the vessels of the Mishkan, came to an end, the sacrifices of the eighth day were brought, and now a fire came out from before God, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat. This study will focus on the nature of the dedication of the Mishkan. What lies behind Scripture's focus on the altar and the Divine fire that came down upon it? We will review three other dedications that took place in the Temple, and identify the uniqueness of each one, and the process that takes places between them.[1]

 

We will open this study by familiarizing ourselves with two of the vessels – the altar and the ark.

 

The altar – the domain of God

 

There are two principal vessels in the Mishkan – the altar and the ark. The first is the site of man's service of God, and the second represents God's place. Paradoxically, in substantive terms the picture is reversed. It is the altar that embodies the domain of God, whereas the ark represents the place of Israel. Let us explain what we mean:

 

Altar: The fact that the altar embodies God's domain in the Temple has various expressions. The sacrifices were consecrated to God, and their consecration was realized through their transfer into God's domain. The altar is a place where life is nullified and returns to its source – its Divine source.[2]

 

The altar is a place where the prohibition against chametz applies all year long.[3] Chametz symbolizes the power of natural processes to effect changes across time – to allow rising and improvement. Its prohibition should be understood as a return to the Divine act that is independent and not contingent on the circumstances of the world – it is a sign of God's presence.[4] Another law that derives from the nature of the altar is its ability to provide a safe haven to a murderer who flees to it.[5] The logic: Since the altar is "God's domain, it is defined as removed from the sovereignty of the people, and the flight of the killer to the altar is perceived as a request for asylum from God – in a domain which is beyond the borders of man. It is as if God were saying: "This man has entered My territory, and you have no authority to do him harm."[6] In the book of Vayikra the altar serves as a key vessel, and in great measure it represents the depth of God's service as it is presented in that book. This is the place on which an eternal fire burns, and at the foundational event – the altar's consecration – the glory of God appears upon it in a fire.

 

In contrast, stands the ark, to which the Divine Dweller comes,[7] and accordingly, it represents the place of the people who host the Dweller within their limits. As opposed to the altar which is a place where life is nullified in the face of the Divine, the altar is a place which invites conversation and encounter between man and God: "And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the covering, from between the two keruvim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel" (Shemot 25:23).[8] In the book of Bemidbar, the ark is given primary weight: The ark is placed in the camp, and the account of its journey is interpreted as a description of the journey of the entire people.[9] This movement is consistent with the basic movement found in the book of Bemidbar – the empowerment of the people by virtue of the presence of He who dwells in the camp.[10]

 

Put another way we can say that the altar embodies the Divine element in the Mishkan, and as such it serves as a workplace for humans (the priests), whereas the ark embodies the place of the people, and as such the Divine Dweller enters that place and rests His Shekhina there.

 

We raised a question at the beginning of this study: What lies behind the fact that the dedication of the Mishkan is focused precisely on the altar? We now have the beginning of an answer – in the identification of the altar as the site of the service in God's domain. Man arrives in God's place and gives Him what is His. The fire that goes out from before God and consumes the sacrifice can be understood as reception of the sacrifice, and thus it represents the fact that a transfer has taken place. Later the fire that will burn on the altar will be lit by the priests, but its initial association with God will fill that future event with the meaning of God receiving the sacrifice.

 

Before we proceed deeper into the answer, let us review the other consecrations that took place in the Temple. We will see a process, from which we will attempt to reach insights.

 

Three other dedications

 

Three more times, fire descends from heaven, and thus consecrates the service in the Temple.

 

The dedication of the Temple in the days of King Shlomo:

 

Now when Shlomo had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt-offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And the priests could not enter into the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord's house. And when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and prostrated themselves, and praised the Lord, saying, For He is good; for His steadfast love endures for ever. Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord. (II Divrei ha-Yamim 7:1-4)

 

As mentioned above, a similar event takes place here, during the course of which a fire comes down from heaven, and consumes the sacrifices on the altar.

 

The dedication of the Temple in the days of Ezra:

 

The following description is not mentioned in the Bible, but is found in the book of Maccabees:[11]

 

Since on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev we wish to celebrate the day of the dedication of the altar, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you shall celebrate it with us. And you shall celebrate it like the days of the festival of Sukkot, and like the day on which Nechemya found in it the holy fire, when he returned to build the Temple and the altar, and he sacrificed upon it burnt-offerings and other sacrifices to God… After many years had passed, and the king sent Nechemya to Jerusalem… they did not find the fire, but rather they found frozen water in its place… And when they offered God's sacrifice, he commanded them to sprinkle the water on the wood and on the sacrifice that was on the altar, and they did so. After this was done, and the sun emerged, and the clouds scattered, a Divine fire blazed up in the sacrifice, so that all the people marveled. And the priests and all the people fell on their faces… And the priests sang praise to thank God. (Book of Maccabees II, 1:21-29)

 

In these lines the book of Maccabees explains the fact that the day of the dedication of the altar was established as a festival day. He compares it to the festival of Sukkot, and to the dedication of the Second Temple in the days of Nechemya. A Divine fire went forth in the Temple during the days of Nechemya, and consumed the sacrifice on the altar. This all took place before the people who marveled at this miraculous event.

 

The dedication of the Temple in the days of the Hasmoneans:

 

The manner in which the Temple was dedicated in the days of the Hasmoneans is not self-evident: A miraculous fire that burned in the menora,[12]burning eight days instead of one. In contrast to the first three dedications which involved a fire that descended upon the altar, here the dedication takes place at the menora. What lies behind this change?

 

He who dwells in the Temple - Where is He?

 

These forms are a sign of the depth of the story of the Shekhina in each of these periods. Three times God chooses the sacrificial service – and comes to the altar. The fourth time He comes to the menora, thus indicating the new focus of the service that He desires. As stated, the altar embodies a position of nullification before God, at a place which is perceived as God's domain. God's revelation took place there in the earlier periods, during the world's childhood, when the life forces had not yet been refined, when human creativity was just starting out, and the way to elevate it passed through total self-effacement before God, before the high heavens – which are above life. In this situation, the way to meet God was to bring an offering, and through this service the world of man was lit up. At the end of the Second Temple period, this type of service still existed, yet God did not come to it. The approval granted to the Temple service was given at that menora that illuminates, at the vessel whose chief feature is not self-effacement, but rather light. "Speak to Aharon, and say to him, When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the candlestick" (Bemidbar 8:2).[13] The menora symbolizes clarity and wisdom – "He who wishes to become wise shall go south" (the menora stood in the southern portion of the Sanctuary). At the end of the Second Temple period, God reveals Himself through the menora, not by way of a fire that descends from heaven, but by way of a fire brought by man which blessedly burns beyond its measure. With this revelation, He says to His people: Here I rest My Shekhina, in the oil that was produced by man, in human endeavor, and in the wisdom that is embodied in the menora. From now on heavenly blessing will rest on all of these things.

 

It is hard not to connect this transition to the transition from prophecy in the First Temple period to wisdom. In the First Temple there was prophecy, whereas in the Second Temple, with Ezra's return to Zion, prophecy disappeared (Ezra was a "scribe"), miracles were no longer performed in the Temple, there was no ark in the Holy of Holies, and the focus shifted from the Prophets to the Sages.[14]

 

The gradation of the three dedications

 

In the lines that follow, we will trace the process that takes place with the first three dedications. What is the difference between the dedication of the Mishkan and the dedication of the Temple in the days of King Shlomo?[15]

 

The first dedication is based on the blessing of Aharon – the High Priest who is in large measure found in the Mishkan. The second dedication is based on the prayer of Shlomo, king of Israel, which gives expression to the national dimension of the one who is in charge of all life in the kingdom. In the first dedication, Moshe joins Aharon, they go into the Tent of Meeting, and from there they emerge to bless the people. In contrast, Shlomo's prayer which comes before the descent of the fire, is an event that takes place before all of the people. It would seem that the fire that goes out "from before the Lord" goes out from a place that is found before God – from the Holy of Holies,[16] whereas in the days of Shlomo, the fire descended from heaven. This can be seen as a clearing out of God's place, which allows for the existence of an expanse that is clear for man. As opposed to the mention of an altar at the first dedication, at the second dedication, there is no explicit reference to an altar. The people's response at the first dedication is: "They shouted, and fell on their faces"; at the second dedication, in addition to the self-effacement, the people also speak: "They praised the Lord, saying, For He is good."

 

The dedication of the Temple in the days of Nechemya is marked by several features:[17] At first they search for a fire that was left from the First Temple. Only after such a fire is not found is an additional channel to a Divine fire opened; after they sprinkle the frozen water on the sacrifice, the sun emerges and the clouds scatter. The sky that had been clouded in darkness fills with light, and the fire is part of a natural process of clearing up. The nature of the fire: "a Divine fire blazed up in the sacrifice" – the fire does not come down from heaven. It is fire with a Divine nature, but at the same time, an account is given of how it blazes up in the sacrifice. The people are totally astonished by the miracle, and their response is: "All the people marveled." This stands in contrast to the dedication in the days of Shlomo, where there is no description of surprise, and certainly not of marvel. After the self-effacement manifested when the priests and the people fell on their faces, the priests sing praises and thank God. The singing represents the human empowerment of the priests. This stands in contrast to the dedication of the First Temple, where the climax reached was giving thanks.

 

Were we to define the essence of the process – at the dedication in the days of Shlomo there is a strong and tangible presence of God, whereas at the dedication of the Second Temple God clears a space, He is at a higher place, and the space in which the people are present allows for broader human expression. This axis reflects a structured process the essence of which is the maturation of the people, which sets a different focus for the event – less nullification of the human dimension, less setting apart of the Divine presence, more Divine presence that illuminates the world and reveals the good that is found in it.

 

Epilogue

 

This study opened with a description of the events that took place on the eighth day – that fire that went out from before the Lord and consumed the offering on the altar before the people. We asked: What lies behind the dedication of the Mishkan that took place at the altar? We familiarized ourselves with the altar – as opposed to the ark of the covenant, and we noted the fact that it represents the service in God's domain in the Temple, in the place that is His. Man comes to God's place, and gives Him what is His. The fire that goes out from before God and consumes the sacrifice – at the dedication – may be understood as reception of the sacrifice, and thus it represents the fact that the essence of the event involves a transfer while drawing closer to the place of God. The sacrifice is transferred into God's domain, and returns to its source – its Divine source.

 

We further noted that there were three more dedications of the Temple over the course of history. The principle that was presented: The way in which God appears in each of them attests to the change that took place in the Temple service from one period to the next, a change that involved a process of softening. At the outset the focus was on self-effacement before God, and from one stage to the next, emphasis is placed on the greater empowerment of man and his role in the event. This change tells of a maturation process taking place in the world. In this sense, the transition to the last dedication – in the Hasmonean period – which takes place at the menora is unique. It represents not the fire that consumes, but rather the fire that illuminates, not the Divine fire that stands apart from the world, but rather the human fire that receives a heavenly blessing.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] This study will focus on the descent of the fire onto the altar at the dedication of the Mishkan, in the Temple of Shlomo, in the Second Temple, and on the burning of the fire in the menora in the days of the Hasmoneans. It will not relate to a parallel axis, in the course of which the Divine Dweller enters the Sanctuary in the image of a cloud that fills the chamber: "Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. And Moshe was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. And when the cloud was taken up from over the Mishkan, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: but if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys" (Shemot 40:34-38). A similar account is given in the book of Melakhim: "And it came to pass, when the priests were to come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord" (I Melakhim 8:11).  

[2] A sacrifice is used in place of a person – in the story of the Akeida, where a ram is offered as a burnt-offering instead of Yitzchak: "And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Avraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in place of his son" (Bereishit 22:13). So too in the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu, which is given a meaning similar to that of a sacrifice: "And a fire went out from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moshe said to Aharon, This is that which the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified" (Vayikra 10:2-3).

[3] "No meal-offering, which you shall bring to the Lord, shall be made with leaven: for you shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the Lord made by fire" (Vayikra 2:11). Along with leaven, mention is made of honey, both of which stand in contrast to the idea of self-effacement which characterizes the service performed at the altar. Another source: "It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it to them for their portion of My offerings made by fire; it is most holy, as is the sin-offering, and the guilt-offering" (Vayikra 6:10).

[4] An illustration of this principle: "And Moshe said to the people, Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place: no leavened bread shall be eaten" (Shemot 13:3). The subject of this verse is remembering the exodus from Egypt in connection with the strong hand that accompanied the exodus. "The hand of God" means "the act of God." "The strong hand of God" refers to a strong act of God that does not rely or rest on the laws of nature. This is similar to a father who holds his child's hand and walks with him, in a manner and at a pace dictated by the father. The child moves his legs and body, and cooperates, but in truth, "the strong hand" of the father is what moves him. And in connection to the strong hand of God: the exodus from Egypt represents the unconditional act of God; it expresses the fact that without this stretching out of God's hand, the people would not have left their bondage in Egypt. The mitzva that follows from this is: "No leavened bread shall be eaten." The prohibition should be understood as a return to the Divine act that is not dependent or contingent on the circumstances of the world. A sign of the strength of God's hand.

[5] In the Torah: "But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; you shall take him from My altar, that he may die" (Shemot 21:14) – the altar does not provide asylum to the intentional murderer. In the Prophets: Adoniyahu is afraid that his brother Shlomo will kill him after he is crowned king, and he therefore seizes hold of the horns of the altar, and is saved: "And Adoniyahu feared because of Shlomo, and arose, and went, and caught hold of the horns of the altar. And it was told Shlomo, saying, Behold, Adoniyahu fears King Shlomo: for, lo, he has caught hold on the horns of the altar, saying, Let King Shlomo swear to me today that he will not slay his servant, with the sword. And Shlomo said, If he will show himself a worthy man, no hair of his shall fall to the earth: but if wickedness shall be found in him, he shall die. So King Shlomo sent, and they brought him down from the atlar. And he came and bowed himself down to King Shlomo: and Shlomo said to him, Go to your house" (I Melakhim 1:50-53). Yoav ben Sheruya adopts a similar plan, after having participated in the rebellion: "Then tidings came to Yoav: for Yoav had inclined after Adoniyahu, though he had not inclined after Avshalom. And Yoav fled to the tent of the Lord, and caught hold of the horns of the altar" (I Melakhim 2:28). In practice, since Yoav intentionally killed two officers, the horns of the altar did not save him, as is written in Shemot 21:14 (this is the way Chazal understood the matter in Bemidbar Rabba 23,13). The Oral Law expands the law to include a priest while he is performing the sacrifical service at the altar, that the altar saves him.

[6] This is similar to a person who is in a certain country, and he flees to a foreign embassy; by law he cannot be removed from there.

[7] An example from the Midrash: "See how cherished was the ark, for the entire Mishkan was made only for the ark, in which the Shekhina rests. All the miracles performed for Israel with the ark were performed because the Shekhina rests in it. See what is written about it: 'And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before the them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place' (Bemidbar 10:33). And it would kill snakes and scorpions, and burn the thorns, and kill the enemies of Israel… See how many miracles there were in the ark, and why? Because the Shekhina and the Torah rested in it, and everywhere that the Torah is the Shekhina is there with it, as it is stated: 'Then they who feared the Lord spoke to one another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it' (Malakhi 3:16). Therefore the ark is more cherished than all the other vessels of the Mishkan"(Midrash Tanchuma Parashat Vayakhel 7). Elsewhere God is called: "The Lord of hosts who dwells upon the keruvim" – "And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him from Ba'ale-Yehuda, to bring up from there the ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who dwells upon the keruvim" (II Shemuel 6:2).

[8] And in the execution: "And when Moshe was gone into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, then he heard the voice speaking to him from over the covering that was upon the ark of Testimony, from betweeen the two keruvim; and it spoke to him" (Bemidbar 7:89).

[9] "And they departed from the mountain of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they were out of the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered: and let those who hate You flee before You. And when it rested, he said, Return, Lord to the ten thousand thousands of Israel" (Bemidbar 10:33-36).

[10] See our study of this issue at length in Parashat Bemidbar.

[11] It seems that the Bible's disregard of this event indicates that Scripture sees this event in the days of Ezra not as a miracle but as a natural occurrence.

[12]   Unlike the three first dedications (the Mishkan, Shlomo's Temple and the Second Temple), which involved a new Temple, here we are dealing with a dedication in the wake of a desecration of the Temple and the cessation of the Temple service. The book of Maccabees compares the dedication of the Hasmoneans to the initial dedication of the Second Temple: "Like the day on which Nechemya found in [the Temple] the holy fire, when he returned to build the Temple and the altar." Note should also be taken of the symbolism of the eight days: The miracle of Chanuka expresses the renewal of the Temple service and it lasts for eight days. It is difficult not to see a connection between these eight days and the seven days of consecration and the eighth day which concluded the days of the dedication of the Mishkan and on which the service began.

[13] The book of Mishlei likens a lamp and light to commandments and the Torah: "For the commandment is a lamp, and Torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23).

[14] The Second Temple period from the time of the Hasmoneans is fraught with meaning for the later development of the Oral Law. Large parts of the heritage of the oral tradition of the Tannaim were formulated and clarified during the period of the Pairs, and until the time of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. This is a significant period of creation in the field of halakhic and aggadic Midrash, and all of the works of the Tannaim grew out of it. It may be suggested that all of these are based on a foundational sign – the Hasmonean revolt which heralded the renewal of Jewish sovereignty – in its broad sense, and alongside it the miracle of the cruze of oil which identified the realm of the new service set down at the door of the generation – the realm of wisdom, in the spiritual renewal in the exceedingly fertile period in the shaping of the Oral Law.

[15] The differences are more numerous, but in this review we will relate to some of the differences that cannot be ignored, and that are reflected in the following verses: "And Aharon lifted up his hand towards the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings. And Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat, where, when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces" (Vayikra 9:22-24). And in contrast: "Now when Shlomo had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt-offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And the priests could not enter into the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord's house. And when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and prostrated themselves, and praised the Lord, saying, For He is good; for His steadfast love endures for ever. Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord" (II Divrei ha-Yamim 7:1-4).

[16] This follows from a series of midrashim that describe the fire that burned Nadav and Avihu as coming out from the Holy of Holies. For example: "'And a fire went out from the Lord' – this teaches that a fire went out from the Holy of Holies and burned their souls. Abba Yose ben Dostai said: Two threads of fire went out from the Holy of Holies, and divided into four, and two entered the nose of this one and two the nose of the other one…" (Sifra Shemini, parasha 1, 34). The words, "And a fire went out from the Lord," perfectly parallels the first account where a fire went out and consumed the burnt-offering and the fat.

[17] See above the citation from the second book of Maccabees.